Lately, I've been trying to think of a reason school boards shouldn't be abolished. I haven't had much luck or inspiration.
Maybe it's because the school board that represents me has made such a consistent botch of budgeting and personnel decisions. Maybe it's because the board publicly berated a well-spoken student who offered an opinion the board didn't approve of.But it's more than just the pettiness and ineptitude of my local board. School boards everywhere seem chronically to suffer from bad judgment and selfishness. The average tenure of a school superintendent in this country is less than three years. The job pays well and carries prestige, so why are tenures so short?
In two words: school boards.
What do school boards do? According to mine, when asked:
- Approve or disapprove budgets prepared by superintendents and business managers.
That's like calling my neighbors to decide whether I can afford to build an addition on my house.
What else do they do? I've dealt with a few of them while I was a high school teacher. The first time was when the superintendent, taking the board on a tour of the high school, inexplicably showed them the boiler room where, to the dismay of the majority, a stack of ancient literature books was waiting to be burned.
Not one of those books was less than 12 years old. Not one was without a torn cover or missing pages or worse. The school already had gotten extra years out of those books by distributing them to slow learners a grade ahead when the good students were done with them, an educational strategy concocted by expediency.
All of them, the following day, were carted back to the classroom occupied by the woman in the next room who had asked the principal to send them to the fire. In the words of the school board (on a memo attached to the sad, tattered pile), "Continue to use these - English doesn't change."
A few years later, when I chaired an English department at another high school, I worked more closely with a board whose biggest concern was maintaining "community standards" in the school system. The members approved my new curriculum without so much as a question about why I believed it would be valuable to students.
But nearly all of them were interested in hearing how I could defend the appearance of "certain words" in the anthologies of contemporary fiction and poetry I was using in my classes. "Look here," one said. "And look here," said another. The authors were Bernard Malamud and E.L. Doctorow, their work provocative and exciting to my students. The words were always the same ones, and always they were taken out of context.
Not to mention the end of the student newspaper I advised because the Harvard-bound editor, at my suggestion, had written a feature on the school's unsuccessful students, interviewing them in an attempt to understand why they were throwing away their opportunity for an education.
"This doesn't represent the school," the principal said, repeating the mandate of the board, even though a few days earlier he had contributed his observations to the article because the student had sought objectivity and depth.
So it's not only money and politics, but I, for one, would rather take my chances with the expertise of those trained and experienced in their specialties, whether discipline or budgeting or school law or textbook suitability.
Certainly, I've known well-meaning, conscientious men and women who have served on school boards to try to improve their local schools, but the end of such boards would be a welcome change from government by self-interest. Then we might see schools operated by professionals whom the community would trust to do what's best for its children.